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Football’s new developments: headbashing, long johns and the mystery of the short corner

Hurrah for football snappers – spending their lives on their knees in the rain – for brilliantly capturing Man United’s Jones’s reaction to an own goal.

Just back from four weeks in the Caribbean – very nice, thanks, especially when on the remote island where I was staying, Bequia in the Grenadines, there arrived out of the blue a colleague, Antonia Quirke, this esteemed organ’s radio columnist. Only ever met her once in ten years, and that was for five minutes at Broadcasting House. She is young and attractive and lives on a houseboat, is lively and fun, so what a surprise when she suddenly moved into the same hotel as me, Bequia Beach (eat your heart out, Mr Lezard).

After that I lost much of my normal holiday desire for trailing into a nearby town in the evenings trying to find a pub showing live Prem football. Which means that now I am back, I have been gorging on Match of the Day box sets. Is there such a thing? I mean watching all the MOTD progs I recorded while away.

Spurs’s second goal in their defeat of Man United – oh, that was sublime. Surely you remember it? It was made more delicious by the fact that it was a perfect own goal by United’s Phil Jones. I have always considered him a lump, but his shot was pure art.

They always say that to really enjoy success in life your rivals must suffer, which is horrible. I, of course, would never say it. But in football, a moment of joy when your team scores is made ever sweeter by the humiliation of an opponent. I sat rewinding the tape and laughing for ages.

Then I noticed a strange thing. On the plane I had seen, on the back pages of the newspapers, a close-up of poor old Jones banging his poor old head against the stanchion of the goal post. I was looking forward to seeing that on TV but Match of the Day did not have it. Had the producers decided it was morally unfair to embarrass him further? Or did their dozens of ace TV cameras not catch it? I suspect the latter. So hurrah for our football snappers, spending their lives on their knees in the rain, as they have done for more than 130 years – they had captured that instant image which so amused millions across the football universe. Apart, of course, from fans of Man United.

Another shot I lingered long over was of Swansea’s Jordan Ayew, in the game against Leicester. He got tackled, fell over – and his shorts came down. Cue crude laughter as the fans nearest waited for a close-up of his tackle. Instead we got the benefit of admiring his long johns – or long combs as they were once called. My father always wore them in the winter, long white fleecy-type women’s drawers that came down to his knees. In those days, no houses had central heating. Ayew’s were longish and white, but neater, tighter than old-fashioned combs, and no doubt made of state-of-the-art super-Lycra to protect his pecks and monitor his blood pressure. Coming soon to a football store near you.

One interesting development I noticed while watching those wall-to-wall games was that Man City now almost always take short corners. I had not been aware of that before I went away. The ball goes only two yards to another player, often back down the field, and then gets passed across to someone who has been lurking on the edge of play, and wham: back of the net.

It has always been clear to most fans that many of the traditional corny corners high into the box go straight into the goalie’s hands, or are headed away easily by a defender, yet teams still persist in doing them. I reckon 50 per cent are immediately cleared while only 10 per cent end in a goal. I just made those figures up but I bet when the pointy-headed video geeks, whom all top clubs now employ, get round to analysing every corner ever taken, anywhere, my figures will be roughly correct.

City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, has realised that by taking a short corner you keep possession, allowing a clever and well-drilled team to manage a clear and dangerous direct shot on goal. Or is it because he currently has no bullet-headed centre forward to throw himself at a high corner, as Joe Royle used to do in the Seventies? I might discuss this with Antonia, next time we meet over a rum punch. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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Like many others, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was left in charge of a failing aircraft

Ony when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility properly resource the NHS. 

The day Leicester trainee paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was struck off by the High Court for her involvement in the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt posted a tweet expressing his deep concern about possible unintended consequences of the ruling. He was referring specifically to the impact on patient safety.

At a stroke, efforts to build a culture of open learning – a cause Hunt champions – had been set back decades. You don’t get people to talk honestly about critical mistakes by threatening them with prison and professional ruin.

There may be other consequences that Hunt didn’t anticipate. Comparisons with another safety-critical industry – aviation – are instructive. On the day Jack died, from undiagnosed sepsis, Bawa-Garba was functioning as would a first officer on an aircraft. The plane’s captain was elsewhere, training other pilots on a simulator in a different city. The chief steward had failed to report for duty, so Bawa-Garba was expected to oversee cabin service as well as fly the plane single-handed.

The aircraft’s IT systems had gone down, meaning one of the stewardesses was permanently occupied looking out of the window to ensure they didn’t collide with anything. Another stewardess was off sick, and her replacement was unfamiliar with the type of plane and its safety systems. And Bawa-Garba herself had just returned from a year’s maternity leave. She’d done quite a lot of flying in the past, though, and the airline clearly believed she could slot straight back into action – they arranged no return-to-work programme, dropping her in at the deep end.

Not one of us would agree to be a passenger on that flight, yet that kind of scenario is commonplace in hospitals throughout the country. Critically ill patients have no awareness of how precarious their care is, and would have no choice about it if they knew. Since the Bawa-Garba ruling, doctors have been bombarding the General Medical Council (GMC) for advice as to what they should do when confronted with similarly parlous working conditions.

The GMC’s response has been to issue a flowchart detailing whom medics should tell about concerns. But it has failed to confirm that doing so would protect doctors should a disaster occur. Nor does it support worried doctors simply refusing to work under unsafe conditions. This is akin to telling the first officer they must inform the airline that things are bad, very bad, but that they still have to fly the plane regardless.

Jeremy Hunt has responded to the crisis by announcing an urgent review into gross negligence manslaughter, the offence of which Bawa-Garba was convicted. This is welcome, and long overdue, but it still serves to retain the focus on individuals and their performance, and keeps attention away from the failing systems that let down doctors and patients daily.

An action by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin is, arguably, more important than Hunt’s review. The organisation has written to Leicestershire police requesting that they investigate Bawa-Garba’s hospital trust for alleged corporate manslaughter. I sincerely hope a prosecution follows. I’m no fan of litigation, but change is only going to come when those who manage the NHS know that they are going to carry the can when things go wrong.

We need clear statements of what constitute minimum acceptable staffing levels, both in terms of numbers, and training and experience. When departments, or even whole hospitals, fall below these – or when unexpected problems such as IT failures occur – managers, faced with the real prospect of corporate lawsuits, will close the unit, rather than keep operating in unsafe conditions, as routinely occurs.

Only when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility – Jeremy Hunt and the rest of the Conservative government – finally act to resource the health service properly. 

This would be an unintended consequence from the Dr Bawa-Garba case that would be welcome indeed. 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist